Here are the two more or less quintessential examples of a cyberpunk setting.
It's also kind of handy to build a level in a city full of towering buildings at night time. The darkness and speed at which you're traveling can mask a lack of details, and if you keep enough tall buildings around the race track, you don't have to worry too much about filling out the background. Both of these elements again emphasize themes of isolation, oppression and powerlessness.
Here's an example of a great game that uses minimal elements to create a strong theme and narrative out of virtually nothing: Canabalt.
In Canabalt, you play a faceless office drone who leaps out of the window of his corporate prison to escape his life. Your character runs to the right, constantly picking up speed, and you tap the screen to jump from rooftop to rooftop until you die. And then you do it again. Also, aliens are attacking the city.
What's brilliant about Canabalt is that all of the narrative and thematic elements are right there, but nobody picks up on them right away. You notice things little by little until you finally start to get a sense of the whole, and what was a cute little runny jumpy phone game suddenly becomes this bleak and harrowing story about the futility and senselessness of life.
So with all those sort of elements in mind, what would be a good concept statement for my level? Since it's a racing game, we can try to make it somewhat genre-appropriate. Something like:
You can't escape your troubles, no matter how fast you go.
As far as setting, so far I've been speaking in terms of a pretty generic near-future urban environment, but I've got an idea that will make it a little more interesting, and hopefully enforce the theme. It's a little bizarre, but hear me out on this: The buildings have faces.
How better to make the player feel powerless and desperate than to surround him with enormous monolithic spectres who grimace at him like something they found on the bottom of a shoe? The faces are greatly abstracted, but should still be distinct enough to set them apart from completely abstract lines of something like Tron. This style will allow me to use the classic visual trope of neon lights on a dark background, but still bring something new to it.
The color scheme seems kind of garish, and is certainly subject to change, but using bright, supersaturated lights will be great way to direct players along the track, just so long as I can successfully differentiate between the track and the background.
Lastly, I've tried to come up with a few ways I can express the theme through the design of the level itself:
I expect I won't have time to implement all of these ideas, but hopefully I can get in enough to really drive home the idea of a stark and oppressive city.
And then there's the Big Tube:
Here's the idea: There's this big tube, that slowly spins counterclockwise. You can ride inside of the tube, or on top of it. While on top of the tube, you have to avoid the series of holes that drop you inside. Inside the tube, the holes are all preceded by small ramps that give you a boost. There will probably be a big boost at the end of the upper track for anyone who can make it all the way without falling through the holes.
Thematically, the idea here is for the inside of the tube to be really flashy and disorienting. Not only spinning, but full of flashing lights and boosts and stuff. It makes you feel powerless and not in control. Riding on top of the tube, you get a sense of being above it all. You get a small reprieve from the flashing lights, and a higher vantage point than on the lower track. That is until you fall in.
I don't know if this makes sense to anyone but me; all I do know is that I'm excited.